- Photo: Franco Vogt
- Gretchen Primack
On a snowy February morning, I drive down Dug Hill Road, Hurley, through bare trees and white fields, to the home of poet Gretchen Primack. She's just returned from Costa Rica, where, among other things, she's been working on her Spanish. I am greeted at the door by a brightly smiling Primack, two dogs, and more cats than I can count. The house is warmed by a magnificent wood stove and smells of the scones Primack is heating up for us. After a bit of preliminary conversation, and many pet introductions (I think I met the father of all cats, an ancient and brilliant orange creature rumored to run with coyotes), we sit down to scones, tea, and a discussion of Visiting Days, her collection of poems written from the perspective of incarcerated men, being released this month by Willow Books.
Primack started her work behind bars with the Bard Prison Initiative, initially tutoring but quickly turning to teaching, and then working as the site coordinator for Eastern Correctional Facility in Napanoch, BPI's largest campus, and the one which offers a full BA program. Primack left in 2013, and is now at Shawangunk Correctional Facility in Wallkill, where she teaches creative writing.
Visiting Days began to manifest during the transition between her work with BPI and SCF, as an organic method of processing. It has taken its final shape as a searing collection of direct and gripping poetry.
Visiting Days falls perfectly between a bitter pill and a ray of hope. Its honesty leaves no room for evasion or misinterpretation, and its content is pressing and crucial. This is a collection of poems that will make you ache for humanity, and hopefully inspire you to take further steps to better it.
During the course of my conversation with Primack, I learned a great deal about ways in which every community member can engage in improving the prison systems, gearing them toward betterment rather than psychological shaming. If you'd like to learn more about ways you can get involved, please email me at email@example.com, and I will happily direct you to an organization that suits your intentions.
Gretchen Primack will read from Visiting Days on April 13 at 5pm at the Woodstock Community Center.
Jane Vick: Visiting Days is exceptional. It's the bitter medicine we need, and still so beautiful for all of its difficulty. When you started working in prisons, did you know a collection of poems was going to come out of it?
Gretchen Primack: When I started, I didn't think about writing at all. I didn't start this until I'd left BPI, and had a break from doing the work entirely. While I was there, people would ask me if I was writing about it, and I would say no, this is my work, it's not fodder for my own personal writing. But, when I left, they just started pouring out. And I do think it's important to address issues of incarceration in this country, through any media possible. That said, the urge to write about it was bigger than an analytical decision. They sort of, pushed out of me.
JV: I love that.
GP: And I have a lot of friends who are now, or were formerly, incarcerated.
JV: Really? As a result of this work?
GP: Oh yeah. Because when they get out they contact me, and we get together. Not always, I mean, some of them might friend me on Facebook, but some of them, we get together, and they've become close friends.
JV: That's wonderful. And as an ally for these men while they're in prison, how does the relationship after they're released unfold?
GP: I'm an ally, yes, but it's on mutual terms, the way it is in any friendship.
JV: Right, so it's a friendship. You're not the patron Saint of Incarcerated Men, or anything like that. There's mutual respect. You're not a benefactor.
GP: Exactly. It's hey, you're a person, I'm a person, let's have lunch.
JV: Right, I'll give you a scone and introduce you to my cats. That's so awesome. And it's another wonderful representation of what I notice in Visiting Days, which is the voice that you return to these men, in the face of the stripping of agency that these institutions very intentionally practice. You offer these people—I know these are fictional characters, but clearly grounded in very real experiences—the chance to reclaim their humanity. You rehumanize them.
GP: That's the intention.
JV: And it sounds like that's how you are once they've left prison as well. It's saying you are a person, in the world, and we have a relationship that could be good or bad, regardless of this part of your history. It's the rehumanizing of a person who should never have been dehumanized in the first place.
GP: Right, the individualizing. Because I think human beings tend to group into a faceless mass that we don't understand, or which it benefits us to not understand. So, if we're going to continue this mass incarceration, we need to see incarcerated men and women as faceless masses. If we're going to vilify undocumented people, then we need to see them as nameless, faceless masses. We can't see them as an individual.
JV: This work happened organically, for you, you didn't approach it with the intention of re-humanizing the inmates, so how did that aspect come out of it?
GP: Because they are individuals. When I write about them, in fictional or real ways, I'm writing about individuals, and I want that perspective to be put into the world. So, it's not that I try to put individualism on them; they are individuals. And then the idea is that, when the poems go into the world, people who might not have seen them that way will see that.
JV: And what are some things about these people that were not individual? What are some things that you noticed, that are the same?
GP: Well, that becomes a political and sociological question, because what you notice is the racial—the insane racial makeup. [Charles the cat jumps into her lap and she immediately begins to scratch his ears.] When I am walking down the hall to the classroom, escorted by an officer, I am intensely aware of who's coming toward me, which is a sea of black and brown. And I just want to scream. But I can't scream, I have to do my work. But to see it, is to not believe that people are accepting it. Because it's not physically possible that this is the criminal makeup. It's literally not possible. So, whether we're in that environment or outside of that environment and knowing about it, the fact that we all are just allowing this is preposterous. So that's something you notice. You notice the racial makeup of the group.
JV: Right. The brutal reality of racial profiling and targeting.
GP: Right, and who they're choosing to examine, because every community has rampant drug use, but who came to Oberlin and arrested us?
JV: Right, I had a boyfriend in college who sold a lot of drugs, and everyone knew, but he was white and from New England, so nobody bothered him. But if he were black, he probably would have gotten expelled, and even arrested.
GP: Exactly, it's exactly the same thing, but if you transfer the business model that he used to a primarily black or otherwise non-white section of town, suddenly he's put away. And that's not to say there are no white men in prison, there are. Nevertheless, the discrepancy is enormous, and often what they did to get there is much more serious.
JV: You have a line in Visiting Days which really stood out to me: "this place is ugly because you are ugly." It's so direct, and so brutal. That's what makes this work so important, that it communicates the reality of what's happening to the men and women in prisons. Because people have to know, before they can respond. So how can we use this brutality as a catalyst for change?
GP: Yeah, I think, as with any issue, there are a lot of avenues. It's important to know as much as you can. What organizations attend to these issues, what bills can be voted on, so forth. And then there are things like writing to incarcerated people, or raising and donating funds to different educational programs. There are so many opportunities to volunteer, to raise funds and awareness, to employ inmates hoping for clemency, or recently released inmates, and so on. There are so many things that can be done, so the more educated we are about the issue, and the more fired up we get, the more will be done.
JV: Right. The more we know, the more we can do, the more we can change.
JV: A triumph of this work is how each of these poems opens a door, behind which is a human being in prison. And that is a pathway for people to begin understanding "Oh, this 'inmate' is a human being, and I, too, am a human being, except I have all of this freedom and opportunity." It's that kind of awareness that initiates the process of doing our part. Was this what you sought to offer with this work? I know you said it came out naturally, as a way of processing your experiences, but in choosing to offer it to the community, what is your intention?
GP: It started, as I said, as a very organic process. But when it became clear to me that I wanted it to be a full-length book, then the idea of what I wanted to communicate began to come in more. Really, it's about raising consciousness. Because, again, how people want to engage themselves around this issue is very personal. I would not say, just as with Kind [Primack's book of poems around animal rights and veganism, published by Post Traumatic Press in 2013], how people are supposed to engage, with the issues around how we treat other living beings. But understanding what's going on, that I feel comfortable sharing, and that's what I would say here too. The idea of really working to individualize the people who are incarcerated, and not have this blanket disavowal and trashing of them. That's my goal.
JV: Right. Put the blatant realities of incarceration right in front of people, and let them go from there. I think Randall Horton [senior editor at Willow Press] says it perfectly in the Visiting Days introduction: "If you feel a little uncomfortable about this book, then we (Willow Press and Gretchen Primack) have done our job as both publisher and poet." [We both laugh, rather gleefully.]
GP: That's exactly right.
Papa G (B3)
Fathers are allowed not to love. I loved anyway.
He was the moment that made my heart announce itself.
But he slipped under the black rock as if I’d never loved at all.
Took time but I found that devil Who pushed him under.
Found him and pushed him under, his mouth round as a zero.
I pushed him so far under the world his body was hardly found.
They found me guilty. I found me.
From Visiting Days (Willow Books) by Gretchen Primack